They say Pura Vida (Pure Life) a lot in Costa Rica...and it's no joke. My experience in Costa Rica was just utterly amazing and I completely fell in love with this little Central American country and Proyecto Asis. I would highly recommend it. Why?
First of all the country. It's a lot different from Western society (in a good way), the houses are small and feel very homely, the roads are mad and chaotic, the food is simple but very delicious (and YES they do eat a lot of rice and beans!!!) and the colours are so bright and vibrant. Moreover, the landscape their just takes your breath away. Costa Rica is worth going just to see the place. Second, the people. The 'Ticos' are beautiful people, they are so chilled, so friendly and so happy. It's a very positive place and I had SO much fun and banter with these people. They live simply, they make do and mend, they are self-sustained, there's a lot we in the Western world could learn from them.
The third reason to go would be for the project and experience of living with a host family. I gained a new family in Costa Rica and I just loved living a whole month with them. At first it's scary, if you're Spanish isn't great (like mine WAS) then it's hard to communicate, but bring them a present and some photos of home, really try to communicate to them and try out their way of life and you'll have a great time. I learnt a lot of about myself and how we lived life back home staying with my family and I think it's a really useful experience. And don't scared, they're all incredibly friendly but most of all they cook you all your food - I can't tell how good a cook my host Mum was! - clean all your clothes, talk to you lots if you talk to them and by the end of your time they'll probably be sadder than you when you leave them! All the host families I came across had had many students before them and knew what they're were doing.
Proyecto Asis, where you'll be working, is brilliant. And now is a great time to go. They're expanding the project, it looks really modern and slick and it's really well run and looked after. The animals are SO much fun and the types they have there are phenomenal - animals I never expected to see in my life! Tucans, Macaws, Sloths, Spider Monkeys, White Faced Monkeys and Hummingbirds are just some of the animals they have there. The first week I was there I couldn't stop thinking how lucky I was to have this 'job'. The job includes mostly cleaning cages, which can actually be fun as you go inside and they start jumping on you and playing with your hair etc, however, we also deep cleaned some, built bridges, transported materials, painted cages, fed animals. It's pretty darn cool! They're doing a really good job at taking in, re-habiliting and then releasing these animals into the wild again. However, what makes Proyecto is the people. Meeting other volunteers is good fun and you will have a good laugh together. One thing I learnt though was to go in June/July as not many people volunteer in August when I went and so it got dull at times. The Ticos at the project are LEGENDS! Look out for these names: Teniente, Ruben, Carlos, Maria Laina and Gonzalo. Trust me, some of the coolest people you will ever meet and they make your work so enjoyable - especially Teniente the man who's in charge of you. Have fun with them and they'll have fun with you. The managers of the place Adriana and Alvero are really helpful, they help you plan your weekends - my weekends including white water rafting, kayaking, hanging canopy bridges and a weekend at the beach!!! - sort any problems you're having and you can ask them about anything basically.
Fourthly if you're looking to improve your Spanish, providing you give it a go, this will happen. Don't expect instant results (like I did), give it time or 'un poco a poco' as they told me, and eventually you'll be having proper conversations with them. It all depends on what level you're at before you go so try to learn as much as you can.
That's it I think. Any tips I would offer would be:
- 3 weeks is the optimum amount of time before you start maybe getting sick of the food or get bored of the routine or really miss home.
- Learn as much Spanish as you can before you go and read about the country/culture.
- Be open minded! Give everything ago. And don't panic/be terrified. Have faith, it's not as backwards a country as you think it is.
- Take a camera, dictionary, sun cream, insect repellent and itch cream. Take summer clothing; you will only be wearing tank tops, a baseball cap, shorts and flip-flops in your free time. Although take crappy clothing for excursions and working at Proyecto - you WILL get very dirty and smelly!
- Get ready for a different life, a different routine, a different climate and different food. But don't be scared of that, embrace it, it's actually really cool to experience.
- Try not to limit yourself with money. There are some really cool experiences on offer and perhaps you'll never get the chance to do them again, take the opportunity!
The programme isn't flawless. For example they don't tell you ANYTHING about your host family, the area you're staying in or any other volunteers you'll be going with which doesn't help the nerves. My knowledge about the project itself was limited and the photos they gave me were old and not very explanatory.
They don't tell you how much money to bring or how much you'll probably spend. Estimates could have been useful for a lot of the volunteers. Nor do they tell you very well how far away things are for weekend entertainment or how often the buses come (only every 1.5-2.5 hours).
Pre-arrival information was good, but I'm from the UK and we had to call a lot of times to Greenheart to check things like do I need X and will Y happen for example. Actual examples included we almost didn't realise we needed a ESTA form, and I didn't know about my arrangements from the airport to my hotel, and then from there to the Proyecto. Also, we found it hard to understand how to call Greenheart as all these toll numbers and international numbers etc were confusing, just tell it simply what you need to do!